Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dissecting the NETP- Part One, Learning: Engage and Empower

This is part one of a new blog series where I want to take a closer look at the newly released National Education Technology Plan. I outline my plan for this series in this post.

Before I dive in to the first meaty section of the plan, I think it's only appropriate to reveal some biases I carry with me as I begin this process. So here they are:

  • I think standardized testing and standardized anything is harmful to students. Anything that promotes rote learning, filling in worksheets, spitting out simple facts without digging deeper is something I will naturally push back against.
  • I believe teachers are an integral part of the classroom process and should be given the freedom and support to deliver classroom instruction and create their classroom environment how they see fit. Teachers are the foremost experts in the education system because they are firmly grounded in the everyday reality of classroom life.
  • I firmly believe that in the 21st century we need to be pushing our students toward collaborating, creating, and publishing their work online.
  • I have qualms with the idea of "scaling up" reform. In other words- taking something that appears to be working well in one school and stamping it on top of other schools. It rarely works, mainly because the reason the first school was successful is not simply because of the program they were running- it's because of the people running the program. People/educators make the difference, not templates.
  • After reading Diane Ravitch's excellent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I have a much more realistic and cynical eye on any type of federal policy.
So with all that being said, now you have an idea for the lens I'll be using when looking at this plan and my own personal standards that I'll be applying. For each section I'll give a brief overview, what I liked, what I didn't like, and some conclusions for what this means moving forward.

Part One: Learning- Engage and Empower

Section Goal: All learners will have engaging and empowering learning experiences both in and out of school that prepare them to be active, creative, knowledgeable, and ethical participants in our globally networked society

This is the first section of the plan and it rightly kicks things off with the learning component. The plan lays out visions for some critically important concepts such as "What Learning Should Look Like", "What People Need to Learn", "How People Learn", "Where and When People Learn", and "Who Needs to Learn." Each of these topics could (and has) filled volumes of literature and careful reflection on their own, so it's interesting to see a plan take them on in a few short pages each. Once each of these aspects are laid out, the plan offers action steps to obtain the goal outlined above.

What I liked:
  • The language rings true. A lot of focus is on expanding the borders of school, blurring the lines between school and life, giving students more choice and freedom, providing relevant contexts for learning, and utilizing technology as a means to help students self-direct their own learning.
  • Digital Portfolios are addressed. "Student-managed electronic learning portfolios can be part of a persistent learning record and help students develop the self-awareness required to set their own learning goals; express their own views of their strengths, weaknesses, and achievements; and take responsibility for them." (p. 12).
  • Leaning on science and research. The plan takes into account what we know about how people learn. There is an emphasis on research-based strategies such as how people are motivated to learn and how that varies from person to person: "We learn and remember what attracts our interest and attention, and what attracts interest and attention can vary by learner."

What I didn't like:
  • Too broad when speaking of deep topics. The topics brought up in this section are enormous. It felt like the plan was glazing over them, saying the right things in broad terms. That is what always worries me about federal documents- the verbiage always sounds great, but the devil is in the actual implementation and execution.
  • The contradiction between the learning model presented here and what Race to the Top seems to be pushing for- ie, more standardization of curricula, more standardized testing. This plan, sponsored by the federal government and with Secretary Duncan's name on it, calls for flexibility, choice, multiple methods of instruction, and pushes for student-directed learning. This plan calls for "transformational change" but Race to the Top is not that at all- more than anything, it seeks to amplify the policies of No Child Left Behind. I'm worried that this plan, even if it seems right on target the rest of the way, will not have teeth in it because of Race to the Top and what it calls for.
  • Something gnaws at me when the plan discusses the idea of layering what it considers to be best practices on top of "what all students should know". This quote makes me think: "A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies form the basis of what all students should learn, but beyond that students and educators have options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and activities tailored to individual goals, needs, and interests." (p. 10). This bothers me and I can't put my finger on exactly why. Maybe I've seen too many students not given opportunities for choice, freedom, and engagement simply because they hadn't learned the "basics" yet- in other words, first we have to drill the basics into you with a hammer, then later we'll let you have fun and be engaged in school. I think that's completely backwards and dangerous. I feel that EVERY student at every level should have access to choice, freedom, creativity, and engagement in their own learning. I don't agree with the idea of "Once you get these basics down, then we can let you have some fun in school" and that's what this plan reminds me of in this section.

I like the wording of this plan so far and I like the direction it wants to move us. My only fear at this point is that while it may be spot on, it may be undercut or replaced by the current administrations' main policy push, Race to the Top. But teachers, don't let that stop you from creating a fun, engaging, tech-driven classroom environment of flexible problem solving and reflection!

Next week, I'll dive into the next section entitled Assessment: Measure What Matters.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dissecting the NETP- New Blog Series

The National Education Technology Plan was just released this month. This long, ambitious document lays out both the general and specific direction that the Department of Education is looking to move forward with. In the next 7 weeks on this blog I'd like to dive into the plan, summarize what it is trying to say, relate what it means for teachers, and offer up my own opinions as to how it is laid out and structured. Any time a plan such as this comes forward from policymakers it is very important to not only wrestle with it in an attempt to understand what it will mean for everyday classroom teaching, but what directions we can expect to be pushed, poked, or prodded to go in the near future!

The name on the plan is "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology." In Arne Duncan's accompanying letter, he stresses that "the model of learning described in this plan calls for engaging and empowering personalized learning experiences for learners of all ages." Within the first page of the executive summary, we find that the plan calls for "revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering" (p. ix), a statement that I very much agree with. However, right after this statement are listed four major emphases of the plan that aren't all that revolutionary:
  • Be clear about the outcomes we seek (Is this a new idea?)
  • Collaborate to redesign structures and processes for effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility
  • Continually monitor and measure our performance (Is this revolutionary?)
  • Hold ourselves accountable for progress and results every step of the way (there's the A word that often gets us into debate...)
The plan is then laid out into five goals with recommendations for states, districts, the federal government, and other stakeholders. These goals address what the plan calls "the five essential components of learning powered by technology: Learning, Assessment, Teaching, Infrastructure, and Productivity" (as a side note, that is an interesting order isn't it?). Each of the next five weeks I will dedicate this Tuesday blog space toward each section. On the 6th week, I'll look at the Research and Development piece included with the plan. And, finally, on the 7th week I'll offer up my final thoughts, conclusions, and ways we can move forward in schools to reconcile the plan with our everyday work with students.

  • Nov. 30th- Learning: Engage and Empower
  • Dec. 7th- Assessment: Measure What Matters
  • Dec. 14th- Teaching: Prepare and Connect
  • Dec. 21st- Infrastructure: Access and Enable
  • Dec. 28th- Productivity: Redesign and Transform
  • Jan. 4th- R&D: Innovate and Scale
  • Jan. 11th- Final Reflections and the Way Ahead
I hope you enjoy these posts and I hope they offer some insight into what will be coming down the pike in our schools.

Happy Thanksgiving!
-Steve J

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Yargh! The Internet is Down! (What next?)

Cross-posted to maupinhouse.com

We’ve all been there- we’ve put together a lesson where we take our kids to the computer lab and all of a sudden student hands (and voices) start shooting up and the worst four words you’ll hear that day start to echo off the concrete- “The Internet is Down!” or “My computer’s not working!”

I’m here to tell you not to panic and give you some ideas for productive/fun things you can do with your students when the Internet comes crashing down. In fact, the whole reason this post is being written is because this situation is exactly what happened at my school today.The Internet came crashing down in the middle of the day and stayed down for the rest of the afternoon. Across the building, varying waves of panic and discomfort spread. I’m proud to say that the teachers I work with handled it with a great amount of flexibility and patience (go JN Fries!).

I was supposed to write this post about the National Educational Technology Plan (NETP) that was just released, but after today’s events I decided to shift direction (stay tuned next week for more info on the NETP). In my office, I found myself reflecting on what I’ve done before when the Internet has gone down with a bunch of students in a lab. I figured I’d give some ideas I’ve used in the past and will surely have to rely on in the future.

  • Do some drawing! PC's have a drawing program installed on every machine, MS Paint. On a Mac, there is no preloaded drawing program but there are two free options that schools can install- Paintbrush (download here) and Tuxpaint (download here). Have students open up a drawing program and create a picture related to the content of the day. They could draw a flag that represents a fictional country in the region you are studying (or where the novel you are reading is set). Students could try to draw a character from a novel they are reading and explain why they connect with that character and how the author worked to make that character relatable to the reader. Students could create a logo, a family shield, or a representation of a math concept such as fractions. Once students are done creating, allow them to walk around and see each other’s creations (a makeshift art gallery opening!).
  • Allow students to get into partners and create a presentation in Powerpoint or a brochure in MS Publisher.
  • Many monitors now have microphones attached to them. If the ones in your lab do, have students work together to create podcasts relating to the content you were hoping to work on. They could come up with interview questions and interview each other. Or, they could roleplay an interview with a character or actual person that is being studied (interview Abe Lincoln, characters from Twilight, or if you’re really creative have them imagine they are inanimate objects such as a tectonic plate or Pluto).
  • Allow students to explore the other programs on the computer. Most of the time, when kids are in the computer lab their time is highly scheduled/regulated. Break that rule by giving them some time to simply open whatever they want on the computer and keep a short log of what they discover. Around the midpoint of class, have students share some of the programs they found that were interesting so that the other students can take a look at those too.
  • Have kids create a revolving story. Ask each student to open up a word processing program and start a story- just two to three sentences is plenty. This story can be completely silly or related to content. Next, every three minutes have students stand up and move to the computer to their left. Before they finish the sentence that was just interrupted, have them change the font color so you can track where each change was made. Keep revolving around and watch the stories grow and evolve! At the end of the period, pull out and display some good examples.

So there you go- a few ideas for things you can do in a lab if you’re ever caught, stuck with the Internet going down. Just remember- don’t panic or get too upset. Like everything else in teaching, roll with the punches and have fun with it!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Using Mahara for Online Student Publishing / Digital Portfolios

In my fourth and final installment of my "Power of Students Publishing Online" series, I take a look at a tool that is completely new to me,Mahara (found at http://mahara.org). I stumbled across this tool overTwitter, where I was able to ask an excellent educator from Nebraska,Brenda Smith, more about how she uses the product (by the way, if you're not connecting with educators yet over Twitter, what are you waiting for?).

That conversation led me to investigate further to see how well Mahara stacked up with other publishing platforms such as the ones I've detailed in this series- Kidblog, Weebly, and Wikis. What I've found is that Mahara offers some excellent features that the other services do not!

So, what is Mahara? It is an open source ePortfolio system. If you're new to the term "open source", this refers to software that is developed as a huge group project, with software developers pitching in through global collaboration! It is all completely open and free for anyone to use, create add-ons for, or make improvements upon (read more on open source here, from Wikipedia). This means that Mahara is constantly being upgraded by the users themselves and will continue to be free for as long as it exists- a definite bonus!

Mahara offers every user/student a portfolio space, a blog (or multiple blogs), access to groups/classes as set up by a teacher, access to forums, the ability to make friends with other users, upload files, create a resume, and more. As with all digital tools, the best advice I can give is for you to create an account and start playing with the interface. As you play and research, here are some pros and cons I discovered while doing the same:

**Special thanks to both Brenda Smith and Rob Griffith for their help in testing Mahara out!!**

  • Free!
  • Lots of storage space per user. Each user has up to 1 GB of storage space, which is plenty for almost all uses. If your students are creating a lot of videos or large images, they might need to host them elsewhere (like Youtube, Vimeo, or Schooltube) and link to them on Mahara.
  • Social Networking aspect. Users can interact with one another through friending on Mahara. This enhances the community atmosphere of the class.
  • Forums, Blogs, and simple file uploads. This is the only tool I've seen that seamlessly allows all of these for free (especially the 1GB storage space).
  • Ability for students to have several classes at once. As a teacher, you can create several classes or courses (or "groups" in Mahara). You can then invite the correct students into each class. This means that students can be set up in multiple classes with just one account. That is a big plus, management wise.
  • Ability to export the portfolio when the course is over. This is a big plus for me. One of the biggest pains in the neck when tackling digital portfolios is the question of "What do we do once the class is over?" You don't want to delete all that wonderful work- you want students to be able to take it with them and use it as they need to. Mahara offers this functionality under "My Portfolio" and "Export."
  • Requires students to have an email account to set up. This can be a major sticking point.
  • Some of the embedding is glitchy. I was able to embed a Voicethread and a few other tools, but Glogster, Timetoast, and Animoto did not seem to work correctly for us.
  • A bit more technical to manage. Of the four tools I've presented in the past four weeks, Mahara will take the most time to learn how to manage. It is not much more difficult, but there are more moving parts here when dealing with users, setting up permissions, forums, blogs, etc.
The bottom line is that if you have student email accounts and feel comfortable after playing around with Mahara, it may just be the best portfolio tool of them all so far! In fact, after playing around with it I may push for this to be our main vehicle for student portfolios in our county next year.

Have fun with it and let me know if I can help!